DeFlip Side #17: Holiday Cheer, Ancient Fears


Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

It’s that time of year again. The lights are twinkling, the temperature is dropping, and I’m getting overwhelmed with sentimental, mushy feelings of peace, love and brotherhood for my fellow man. My radios are preset to the Christmas music stations and my computer at work has become a streaming digital jukebox of Yuletide cheer. For as long as I can remember, Christmas has always sucked me right in. It even makes me enjoy shopping, an activity I rank right up there with watching Oprah Winfrey, or repeatedly whacking myself in the groin with a ball-peen hammer.

I never really stopped to consider why I love Christmas so much, but I think I’m drawn to it for many of the same reasons I’m drawn to Science Fiction and Fantasy. Talking Snowmen. Flying Reindeer. A fat guy breaking and entering through the chimney. Such is the magic of Christmas. If ever there was a season of sci-fi, this is it.

But while we’re steeped in our Rankin/Bass television specials, eggnog ice cream and our pop holiday icons, it’s easy to forget that a lot of the trappings of the season have their roots in much darker traditions that go way, way back, predating Christmas, as we know it, by as much as 4,000 years in some cases.

While this is primarily a season of joy for most of us, you need to take yourself out of the 21st Century mindset. People used to be terrified at this time of year. The days were short, the nights long and cold. It was the season of death, when the boundaries between our reality and the darker realm of the spirit grew dangerously thin. And the harsher the season, the more elaborate the rituals and superstition. It’s no coincidence that most of our seasonal traditions can be traced to the Northern latitudes, where the sun would disappear altogether.

Many of these traditions began with the Mesopotamians, and their celebration of the New Year. Each year, as winter arrived, they believed that their chief god, Marduk, would join in battle against the monsters of chaos. To help him out, the Mesopotamians held a New Year’s festival, called Zagmuk. It lasted 12 days. And I somehow get the feeling that there wasn’t a partridge or a pear tree anywhere in sight.

As part of the ritual, the Mesopotamian king would go to the temple of Marduk and swear his faithfulness to the god, at which point he was supposed to die, and join in the otherworldly combat at Marduk’s side. Of course, no king was actually stupid enough to do this. Instead, a criminal was chosen as a mock king. For that short time, he was garbed in royal clothes and given all the same perks as the real king. And just when he was riding highest, they would end the celebration by grabbing the poor schmuck, stripping him and killing him. Thus did the real king live from year to year. Of course, we don’t know how Marduk felt about having a second-rate, mock royal general fighting at his side, but how many Mesopotamians do you see running around?

The Persians and the Babylonians extended this tradition of trading places—this time between masters and slaves — when they celebrated their own year-end festival called the Sacaea. In fact, this tradition of trading places for a day lasted right up to the 1800s, where it was still practiced in England and Ireland as the “Day of Misrule.” The thread running through all these traditions seems to be an emphasis on giving chaos its due, letting it have free reign in the season of death, even if just for a day.

But striking a light against the darkness was equally important. The Yule log is another tradition with ancient roots. Norsemen used it in festivals to celebrate their belief in the powers of the gods, primarily Odin, the all-father, who was linked to the sun. Of course, they did it in true Viking style. Forget about that tiny, pathetic stick you’ve been watching on TV all these years. Instead, they would hack down the biggest tree they could find and make a huge bonfire. The Irish and Scandinavians had similar traditions of lighting huge bonfires on hill and mountaintops to keep vigil against the darkness—as well as trolls, witches and the fairie folk—with hopes of luring the sun back. They would even send scouts to look for and bring back word of the sun.

The Greeks and Romans got in on the act as well. Ancient Greeks held a festival to assist their god Kronos in his battle against Zeus. The Roman’s celebrated Saturnalia, named for the god Saturn, which included masquerades in the streets, huge meals, and visiting with friends to exchange gifts of lucky fruits, which sounds like the ancient equivalent of a pair of socks.

These year-end celebrations were so prevalent, in so many different cultures, that they seem woven into the very fibers of humanity. So it’s no surprise that when Christianity came into its own, the church decided not to fight the established traditions, but rework them to fit Christian theology. Hence, the sun, s-u-n, becomes the Son, S-o-n, and suddenly we’re all singing happy birthday around the nativity.

As for the origins of the Christmas tree, I was able to track down about a million different stories about who was the first one to bring it inside and throw lights on it. It’s been attributed to the Vikings, Martin Luther, and St. Bonafice among others. The stories depend on who you talk to and what traditions they’re pushing. But the root of it all, or so I’ve been able to determine, is that people would bring the trees into the house as a reminder of the spring to come. It was the same with the mistletoe and the holly and the ivy. We don’t do it any longer, but people would also string up sage and thyme and other stuff. Basically, if it was green, it was fair game. All of it was an homage to life. And all the legends grew up around it afterward.

While we might not look upon these days quite as darkly with our modern sensibilities, one seasonal sentiment remains as strong as it ever was: the need to congregate and share what we have with those around us. And while they might have done it mainly out of necessity back then, to avoid starving and freezing to death, I think it’s just as necessary to our survival as it ever was; because while the celebrations continue to survive, they do so with great irony. They originated primarily as Bacchanalian festivals to give vent to the forces of chaos in the universe, to let misrule take over for a little while and keep the universe in balance. Now they have become the exact the opposite.

These days, chaos reigns year-round, and we use the holidays mainly as an opportunity to rediscover civility and spread good feelings—to take the time to respect one another as human beings. That’s what lies at the heart of the season now, not death, but decency. That we practice it through the trappings of fantasy and science fiction is just a lucky extra for geeks like me.

Merry Christmas everyone!